As responsible readers and interpreters of Scripture, we approach the text of the New Testament letters in the manner of first century hearers in a predominantly oral/aural culture, and sensibly hear them as direct and pointed communications that are meant to critique and praise, while at a time and place that would have been entirely appropriate to the early church, which was the table of fellowship, as Christ’s people sought to distinguish themselves from their communities through their faithful enactments of the wonderful vision of the eschatological messianic banquet (heavily influenced by Isaiah). Correct placement of the meal table in the life of the church, and a highlighting of its importance for faith and practice from the time of Jesus until now, is so crucial because it is an overt and subversive confession of the rule of God in Christ that is being portrayed by this relatively simple action. Unfortunately, most of us have given far too little thought to this idea.
This occasions a quick reminder that it is not only the letters that make a request to be heard from such a position, but the Gospels are also designed to be heard as theo-dramas---scripts for performance through recitation---that will instruct their hearers about Jesus in a standard and uniform way. Though in this day we have the privilege of approaching all of Scripture privately and individually, the Scriptures were to be heard in a community---a community that shared a basic story that stretched back to the first words of Genesis. Jews who heard the content of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament were thoroughly immersed in the story of their people, shaped by what seemed like an endless procession of exile and exodus. Gentiles who heard letters and the stories that would come to be codified in the Gospels were in need of instruction (and incorporation) in the story of Israel (as the family of God, and not simply Israel per se) so that they could make sense of what they were hearing. That is the position in which the vast majority of Christians find themselves. We must bear in mind that all would hear the words that would eventually come to be called the New Testament, as part of a community shaped by Greco-Roman culture and customs, in a world ruled by a Caesar.
If we do not, or if we are unwilling to make the effort to understand the world in which the church was birthed, shaped as it was by Greek culture and Roman power, we will be lost. If we do not, or if we are unwilling to make the effort to understand the world of Israel and Judaism into which Jesus spoke, which demands our utmost attention and concern so as to avoid a lazy and misguided retrojection of our own culturally-shaped worldviews (whatever that culture may be), then we will merely find a Jesus of our own making, constructing power-exerting truth claims that are designed to benefit ourselves, our cultures, our countries, and our bank accounts, and that exist primarily to justify the ability to go about our own merry way, with little to no modification of the ways in which we interact with this world.
If we allow ourselves to form spiritual opinions that do not take into account of, through the hard-won knowledge of broad-ranging and far-reaching study, the social, historical, political, economic, and cultural norms of Jesus’ day (and Abraham’s day, Moses’ day, David’s day, Daniel’s day), and instead, retreat into the weak and indefensible position of being led into all knowledge by the Spirit (Jesus is reported to have spoken of being led into all knowledge by the Spirit, and He spoke such words to a group that was well aware of and ensconced within the story of Israel, past and present), then our opinions will be nearly worthless. They will be nothing more than a personal mythology of God that causes us to hear the words of Scripture from within the echo-chamber of our own mind, reinforcing, without challenge, subjective definitions and notions of spirituality and of that which is pleasing to God and demanded by Him. Too often, this leads to attempts to control the actions, behaviors, social interactions (and probably money) of members of a church community, which is far less complicated then instructing so as to inspire the members of a church community to figure out how they can go into this world as effective ambassadors of the kingdom of God, serving others in the way that Jesus suggested was tantamount to serving Him (providing water, food, and clothing, while visiting the sick and those in prison).
A complacent and ironically dogmatic ignorance of the world into which Jesus spoke, and of that world which also shaped the words that Jesus used and the way that His words would be understood, often leads to an unwarranted separation from society---a retreat, waving the white flag of surrender, when the responsibility is to be bold ambassadors for God’s kingdom through the spoken and lived-out proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and an ungrounded and unfounded insistence on personal holiness (defined by a series of “do’s” and “don’t’s”) constructed at the whims of an authoritarian figure. Rarely, will self-sacrifice be the model of the church community that is asked to prize ignorance. In such a community, it is likely that the only self-sacrifice demanded will be that of the community sacrificing its goods (time and money) for the enrichment of its head, as an “us against the world” mentality is fostered and new covenant boundary markers are raised (in defiance of Jesus) as an impenetrable wall that does little more than impede the advance of God’s kingdom. The banner of such a community becomes their own perceived spiritual superiority, which flies in the face of the ideals of the believing community espoused and encouraged in the New Testament.